In the last ten years, English police have routinely labelled people who are peacefully protesting, together with campaigns associated with these movements as cases of “domestic extremism”. Stigmatising protests with this label has a chilling effect on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, as protesters feel intimidated and therefore refrain from joining demonstrations.
Netpol launched a campaign called “Campaigners. Not extremists”, in an effort to place pressure on police forces to drop the label. The label, Netpol argues, is problematic because of its ambiguous and unclear definition, especially if it is potentially used in a legal framework. Moreover, Netpol argues:
“As we have seen with the anti-fracking movement, designating a campaign as ‘extremist’ means that all those associated with it may also find themselves labelled in this way – even if they do nothing unlawful.”
In June 2019, David Anderson QC, a lawyer and a former independent reviewer of UK terrorism legislation, published a report on UK counter-terrorism legislation in which he openly criticises the label as “manifestly deficient”. He has called for the police to drop this terminology.
The silver lining on this matter is that in August 2019, the Home Office announced that they would stop using this phrase. This victory was achieved through Netpol’s pressure and campaigning and through activists, politicians, academics and practitioners such as Anderson.
However, the Home Office is currently working on “new terminology”, which might be as harmful and broad as the previous terms. The new terms will likely continue to “classify all protest as a risk activity deserving of intensive surveillance”, according to Netpol.
Nonetheless, episodes labelling certain protests as ‘extremist’ continue. For instance the Surrey County Council has repeatedly classified anti-fracking protests as extremist, in spite of the Home Office’s statement in December 2016 which declared that “support for anti-fracking is not an indicator of vulnerability” to extremism.
We are pushing nationally to stop using the "domestic extremist" label against political dissent. Already sustained pressure has forced government departments to abandon it. Its use by the police is clearly untenable. For more on Netpol's campaign see https://t.co/PJMHSHWfe7 pic.twitter.com/mYDS57zYHy— Netpol (@netpol) January 27, 2020
In July 2019, King’s College London acknowledged its wrongdoing in its decision to ban 13 students and a staff member from the campus during a visit by the Queen. The banned group were denied access after being identified as campaigners and activists. Additionally, a list of protesters’ names was unlawfully shared by the head of university security (who previously worked for the Met) with the Metropolitan police. The circulation of such a list indicates that King’s College has been profiling students who took part in protests in 2018 and 2019, which is extremely concerning.
A survey by Netpol reveals that high school students are increasingly worried about police asking schools for a list of students taking part in climate protests. In Manchester, protesters have noticed an increased presence of police at Youth4Climate strikes. In some instances, protesters have spotted cameras filming those attending protests. This points to an increase in the use of surveillance tactics against young people and student activists.
In October 2019, a new report by Netpol highlighted a number of issues experienced by climate change protesters, linked to Extinction Rebellion (XR). These issues include preventative measures aimed at banning all protests, with no distinction between lawful and unlawful ones; disproportionate use of force and violence against protesters; and unwillingness of police officers to collaborate with the demonstrators.
For example, in September 2019, preemptive policing was targeted towards XR activists organising Heathrow Pause. This protest consisted of flying “a drone within the airport’s three-mile (5km) exclusion zone [...] in a bid to disrupt flights”. Before this action, Roger Hallam, co-founder of XR and others “were pre-emptively arrested before taking part in a collective act of nonviolent civil disobedience.” Other people had their homes searched and their IT equipment confiscated. This tactic was witnessed in the past, specifically against climate activists.
While international rebellion action was taking place from 7th October 2019, on 14th October 2019, XR activists were banned from protesting in the City of London by the Metropolitan Police. In order to do so, the Met issued a revised Section 14 order (regulating UK public order) to specifically target the group.
Any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘Autumn Uprising' must now cease their protest(s) within London (Metropolitan Police Service, and City of London areas) by 2100 hours on Monday 14th October 2019.https://t.co/f3e0sozVAG pic.twitter.com/kYA7NOYwmX— MPS Events (@MetPoliceEvents) October 14, 2019
The director of the Good Law Project, Jolyon Maugham QC, told CNN:
"We think it's pretty unprecedented for an order to be made for a particular organisation... It feels disrespectful and unlawful. [...] Usually the orders seek to strike a balance between people's lawful right to protest and broader public interest. This order bars people from doing anything linked to Extinction Rebellion in London... it's quite extraordinary".
According to Netpol, during the two-week mobilisation, activists reported 521 incidents of abuse of police power, including 200 allegations of heavy-handed policing and 99 of intimidation or inappropriate behaviour.
At the beginning of November 2019, a judicial review found that “the decision to impose the condition [to ban the assembly] was unlawful because there was no power to impose it” as Extinction Rebellion’s two-week long “autumn uprising” was not considered a single public assembly.
Judge Justice Dingemans said:
“Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly under the meaning of section 14(1) of the 1986 act”.
On a positive note, in June 2019, courts ruled that the Met police had to pay out £700 000 to 153 protesters who were arrested in 2013 before and during an anti-fascist protest in London. During this protest, the police admitted to using covert officers to infiltrate the demonstration.
Another important victory was recorded in November 2019, when the UK government announced it would halt fracking on the only active site in the country (Preston New Road) and stop supporting future fracking projects. This comes after strong campaigning by anti-fracking movements supported by environmental activists, organisations and scientific reports which proved the dangers that the industry poses.